The Greatest Laker Ever™

There’s been a lot of talk about how Kobe Bryant’s legacy is “on the line” tonight. Win, and he could become the Greatest Laker Ever™ (Bryant would have 5 championships in Forum Blue & Gold, tying him with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan as the franchise’s winningest winner); lose, and it would be his 3rd Finals loss (clearly a blemish from which his reputation could never recover). In short, Bryant supposedly won’t be the same caliber basketball player tomorrow morning if the Lakers don’t win tonight.

In case you can’t tell, I think that’s an extremely flawed and childish way to look at the question of who the greatest Laker was/is. Kobe winning a ring tonight adds to his resume in some ways, but it’s not like getting to 5 titles automatically ties his career with Magic Johnson’s, nor is it true that he could never surpass Magic if L.A. loses tonight. Winning a ring is the ultimate team accomplishment, but we have much better ways to parse out player contributions than to lazily took at championship totals and blindly base our evaluations on them alone.

Kobe vs. Mikan

The numbers are extremely limited for Mikan’s era, so I’m going to leave this one alone for now… For instance, Mikan was 27 when the NBA first tracked minutes played; by that age, Kobe had already logged 21,962 MP. There’s really just no valid way to compare the two players.

Kobe vs. Elgin & Jerry

It’s much easier to compare Kobe to Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Laker stalwarts of the 1960s. They didn’t keep turnovers or various defensive stats in those days, but we can look at what information we do have to make an informed comparison. Using Justin’s estimated turnovers and assuming 30% of TRB are offensive, we can make an educated guess as to what the Offensive Rating of a pre-1974 player was. Here are Baylor and West’s career Basketball on Paper stats (glossary):

Elgin Baylor’s Career Stats
Year Age Team G MP Poss PProd ORtg %Pos Floor% tDRtg lgRtg
1959 24 MNL 70 2855 1791.1 1723.1 96.2 25.6 0.478 91.2 90.1
1960 25 MNL 70 2873 2054.5 1986.2 96.7 28.1 0.485 90.7 91.0
1961 26 LAL 73 3133 2503.4 2471.1 98.7 30.6 0.490 90.7 91.8
1962 27 LAL 48 2129 1781.1 1738.9 97.6 32.6 0.488 93.4 93.5
1963 28 LAL 80 3370 2521.8 2612.3 103.6 30.9 0.510 96.1 95.6
1964 29 LAL 78 3164 1983.5 1951.4 98.4 27.0 0.487 97.1 94.0
1965 30 LAL 74 3056 2069.6 1956.9 94.6 28.6 0.469 96.0 93.2
1966 31 LAL 65 1975 1169.3 1091.9 93.4 23.6 0.468 96.5 94.6
1967 32 LAL 70 2706 1796.4 1781.2 99.2 25.9 0.490 97.1 95.9
1968 33 LAL 77 3029 1956.0 1987.3 101.6 26.4 0.505 97.4 96.3
1969 34 LAL 76 3064 1859.5 1867.9 100.5 26.1 0.504 95.7 96.0
1970 35 LAL 54 2213 1207.4 1293.4 107.1 23.5 0.534 99.6 100.3
1971 36 LAL 2 57 20.6 19.2 93.2 15.6 0.472 99.9 98.5
1972 37 LAL 9 239 105.8 105.5 99.7 18.9 0.494 96.4 99.4
Jerry West’s Career Stats
Year Age Team G MP Poss PProd ORtg %Pos Floor% tDRtg lgRtg
1961 22 LAL 79 2797 1484.4 1374.7 92.6 20.3 0.470 90.7 91.8
1962 23 LAL 75 3087 2144.9 2186.2 101.9 27.1 0.507 93.4 93.5
1963 24 LAL 55 2163 1392.6 1424.1 102.3 26.6 0.509 96.1 95.6
1964 25 LAL 72 2906 1804.5 1949.1 108.0 26.7 0.530 97.1 94.0
1965 26 LAL 74 3066 1934.4 2122.7 109.7 26.6 0.540 96.0 93.2
1966 27 LAL 79 3218 2160.4 2365.1 109.5 26.8 0.532 96.5 94.6
1967 28 LAL 66 2670 1699.5 1844.8 108.6 24.8 0.526 97.1 95.9
1968 29 LAL 51 1919 1158.6 1294.5 111.7 24.7 0.551 97.4 96.3
1969 30 LAL 61 2394 1440.8 1544.5 107.2 25.9 0.528 95.7 96.0
1970 31 LAL 74 3106 2018.2 2243.5 111.2 28.0 0.547 99.6 100.3
1971 32 LAL 69 2845 1733.2 1909.5 110.2 26.3 0.542 99.9 98.5
1972 33 LAL 77 2973 1938.5 2073.1 106.9 27.9 0.529 96.4 99.4
1973 34 LAL 69 2460 1536.1 1617.0 105.3 28.0 0.522 95.9 98.7

If we adjust those numbers to the 2010 environment of 107.6 points per 100 possessions, we end up with these translated stats for Baylor/West:

Baylor West
Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos tmDRtg Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos tmDRtg
1959 24 MNL 70 2855 114.9 25.6 108.9 1961 22 LAL 79 2797 108.5 20.3 106.2
1960 25 MNL 70 2873 114.2 28.1 107.1 1962 23 LAL 75 3087 117.2 27.1 107.5
1961 26 LAL 73 3133 115.6 30.6 106.2 1963 24 LAL 55 2163 115.0 26.6 108.1
1962 27 LAL 48 2129 112.3 32.6 107.5 1964 25 LAL 72 2906 123.6 26.7 111.2
1963 28 LAL 80 3370 116.5 30.9 108.1 1965 26 LAL 74 3066 126.7 26.6 110.8
1964 29 LAL 78 3164 112.6 27.0 111.2 1966 27 LAL 79 3218 124.5 26.8 109.8
1965 30 LAL 74 3056 109.2 28.6 110.8 1967 28 LAL 66 2670 121.8 24.8 109.0
1966 31 LAL 65 1975 106.2 23.6 109.8 1968 29 LAL 51 1919 124.8 24.7 108.8
1967 32 LAL 70 2706 111.3 25.9 109.0 1969 30 LAL 61 2394 120.1 25.9 107.2
1968 33 LAL 77 3029 113.5 26.4 108.8 1970 31 LAL 74 3106 119.2 28.0 106.8
1969 34 LAL 76 3064 112.6 26.1 107.2 1971 32 LAL 69 2845 120.3 26.3 109.1
1970 35 LAL 54 2213 114.9 23.5 106.8 1972 33 LAL 77 2973 115.7 27.9 104.3
1971 36 LAL 2 57 101.8 15.6 109.1 1973 34 LAL 69 2460 114.7 28.0 104.4
1972 37 LAL 9 239 107.9 18.9 104.3

Compare those to Kobe Bryant’s translated numbers:

Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos tmDRtg
1997 18 LAL 71 1103 101.9 24.2 104.6
1998 19 LAL 79 2056 112.8 26.1 106.2
1999 20 LAL 50 1896 112.1 24.7 109.8
2000 21 LAL 66 2524 114.2 26.3 101.5
2001 22 LAL 68 2783 116.9 30.6 109.4
2002 23 LAL 80 3063 115.1 30.0 104.7
2003 24 LAL 82 3401 115.7 32.0 108.7
2004 25 LAL 65 2447 117.5 28.5 105.8
2005 26 LAL 66 2689 112.8 31.6 113.0
2006 27 LAL 80 3277 115.1 36.5 107.0
2007 28 LAL 77 3140 116.6 32.6 109.8
2008 29 LAL 82 3192 115.1 30.6 105.6
2009 30 LAL 82 2960 114.6 31.0 104.1
2010 31 LAL 73 2835 109.1 31.4 103.7

As you can see, Bryant at his offensive peak was capable of a 115-116 ORtg on 32% of team possessions when on the floor; Baylor at his best was capable of a 114-115 ORtg on only 29% of team possessions. There can be little doubt, then, that Bryant was a better offensive player than Elgin Baylor. On defense, Bryant has been named 1st team All-Defense 8 times, although some were suspect picks (L.A.’s defenses were wildly inconsistent and featured one of the worst in recent memory in 2005; after 2002, they didn’t become elite again until 2009-10). They didn’t give out All-D awards when Baylor was in his prime, but he was top 10 in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares from 1960-63 on the strength of his rebounding. However, the Laker defenses he oversaw were just as inconsistent as Bryant’s, and on average were slightly worse. That means Bryant is, at worst, even defensively with Baylor, and better offensively, making Bryant a Greater Laker™ overall.

West is a different story, though. His prime saw him post an ORtg of 124-125 on 26% of possessions, which even puts him above Dantley territory offensively. If we assume a 1-point ORtg tradeoff for West when taking on more possessions, he could easily maintain a 32% rate with more efficiency than Bryant. So I’m going to give West the slight offensive edge over Kobe. Defensively, West won All-D honors the first 5 years they existed and appears to have been every bit Bryant’s equal reputation-wise. His teams were worse defensively on average than Kobe’s, though, and played their best when he was in the twilight of his career. Bryant gets the slight edge on D, so it looks like it’s probably 50-50 as to whether West or Bryant was better. If you need a high-volume scorer, go with Kobe… if you need a more willing distributor, go with The Logo.

Kobe vs. Magic & Kareem

After 1974, we have complete stats (estimating turnovers for 1974-78), so it’s very easy to compare Kobe’s translated numbers to those of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

Abdul-Jabbar Johnson
Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos trDRtg DPA Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos trDRtg DPA
1976 28 LAL 82 3379 116.7 27.2 98.5 4.95 1980 20 LAL 77 2795 115.5 22.4 103.5 1.45
1977 29 LAL 82 3016 123.6 26.6 99.9 3.95 1981 21 LAL 37 1371 116.9 25.7 100.2 2.21
1978 30 LAL 62 2265 120.4 26.5 100.0 3.78 1982 22 LAL 78 2991 119.1 22.4 102.9 1.68
1979 31 LAL 80 3157 118.6 23.5 101.5 4.31 1983 23 LAL 79 2907 121.9 21.9 105.5 1.33
1980 32 LAL 82 3143 120.4 23.6 102.2 2.94 1984 24 LAL 67 2567 118.0 22.8 104.5 1.60
1981 33 LAL 80 2976 120.4 25.1 103.2 1.96 1985 25 LAL 77 2781 123.1 23.7 106.6 0.32
1982 34 LAL 76 2677 116.5 24.3 104.1 1.55 1986 26 LAL 72 2578 122.5 24.7 106.2 0.16
1983 35 LAL 79 2554 121.7 23.0 106.8 0.78 1987 27 LAL 80 2904 123.0 28.8 105.2 -0.09
1984 36 LAL 80 2622 114.8 23.6 106.4 0.26 1988 28 LAL 72 2637 117.8 26.0 106.4 0.00
1985 37 LAL 79 2630 119.9 22.9 104.8 1.50 1989 29 LAL 77 2886 124.7 27.1 104.7 0.64
1986 38 LAL 79 2629 117.9 25.2 106.0 0.36 1990 30 LAL 79 2937 125.5 27.3 105.5 0.28
1987 39 LAL 78 2441 113.3 21.3 105.9 0.38 1991 31 LAL 79 2933 123.2 26.2 104.2 0.68
1988 40 LAL 80 2308 108.3 20.2 106.4 0.47 1996 36 LAL 32 958 116.8 24.9 107.0 -0.52
1989 41 LAL 74 1695 103.7 18.9 106.4 0.75

Here are the same numbers for Kobe Bryant:

Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos trDRtg DPA
1997 18 LAL 71 1103 101.9 24.2 106.1 -1.61
1998 19 LAL 79 2056 112.8 26.1 108.8 -1.58
1999 20 LAL 50 1896 112.1 24.7 109.7 -0.60
2000 21 LAL 66 2524 114.2 26.3 101.3 0.95
2001 22 LAL 68 2783 116.9 30.6 109.7 -1.36
2002 23 LAL 80 3063 115.1 30.0 105.9 -0.69
2003 24 LAL 82 3401 115.7 32.0 106.5 -0.42
2004 25 LAL 65 2447 117.5 28.5 106.2 -0.21
2005 26 LAL 66 2689 112.8 31.6 113.0 -1.69
2006 27 LAL 80 3277 115.1 36.5 106.8 -1.54
2007 28 LAL 77 3140 116.6 32.6 110.3 -1.60
2008 29 LAL 82 3192 115.1 30.6 104.9 -0.06
2009 30 LAL 82 2960 114.6 31.0 104.8 -0.81
2010 31 LAL 73 2835 109.1 31.4 104.4 -0.73

Jabbar was a big man who didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until later in his career, so it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but his Laker peak saw him put up a 120 ORtg on 25% of possessions. Bryant used 7% more possessions, and it’s safe to say that an older Kareem would not have been capable of a 115.5 ORtg on 32 %Poss… Bryant was superior offensively to Jabbar as a Laker. Defensively, the stats say it’s no contest, Kareem in a landslide. Jabbar was also a 7-time All-D selection in L.A., so I think the choice of Kareem is obvious on defense. In other words, it comes down to a choice: do you want a high-scoring guard who’s good defensively, or a center who’s slightly inferior on offense but makes a much larger defensive impact? Conventional wisdom says you take the center, right?

Magic’s Laker peak saw him post a 121-122 ORtg on 25% of possessions, and asking him to take on 32% like Kobe would likely drag his ORtg lower than Bryant’s 115.5. (Although Johnson did increase his usage to 29% in 1987 and still maintained a 123 ORtg, so who’s to say?) Still, give the offensive edge to Bryant for the sake of the argument. Defensively, Magic’s individual numbers are better, but his teams were basically even with Bryant’s and he had none of the All-Defense accolades that Kobe has. Given this evidence, it seems that Bryant actually should be considered a Greater Laker™ than Magic Johnson, as heretical as that sounds.

Kobe vs. Shaq

Ah, yes, the granddaddy of them all… It might seem obvious that Shaq wins this battle, since he was the best player on a team with Bryant for the better part of a decade, but that was an unfair matchup: prime Shaq vs. young, pre-prime Kobe. Let’s take them head-to-head, prime-vs-prime:

Year Age Team G MP trORtg %Pos trDRtg DPA
1997 24 LAL 51 1941 110.5 30.2 99.5 2.88
1998 25 LAL 60 2175 115.5 31.1 103.0 1.42
1999 26 LAL 49 1705 121.3 31.4 107.0 0.19
2000 27 LAL 79 3163 118.9 30.7 97.8 3.00
2001 28 LAL 74 2924 119.1 31.3 105.2 2.14
2002 29 LAL 67 2422 119.3 31.0 102.4 1.56
2003 30 LAL 67 2535 121.6 29.6 106.4 1.05
2004 31 LAL 67 2464 114.1 26.3 102.7 2.79

Shaq’s stay in L.A. was relatively short, and this lack of longevity could work against him. Still, his L.A. prime was a beastly 120 ORtg on 31% of possessions, clearly making him the better offensive option than a prime Kobe. Defensively, Shaq was actually a 3-time All-Defensive pick as a Laker, and his numbers are better than Bryant’s — it’s generally assumed that a center has more control over team defensive performance than a perimeter player, and L.A.’s total defensive collapse after O’Neal departure seems to back this theory up. Even if we consider Kobe first among equals defensively, Shaq’s offense puts him over the top. During their respective primes, Shaq was the Greater Laker™.


  • Tonight’s outcome should have little bearing on the “Greatest Laker” conversation, because Bryant will be the exact same player tomorrow morning that he is right now.
  • Bryant is probably a Greater Laker™ than Elgin Baylor & Magic Johnson.
  • Bryant is probably not a Greater Laker™ than Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Shaquille O’Neal — although you could still argue that he surpasses Shaq on longevity alone.

About Neil Paine

I work for I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on June 17, 2010, in Analysis, History, Statgeekery. Bookmark the permalink. 46 Comments.

  1. Shouldn’t there be some playoff numbers in here?

    Also automatically using more possessions is not necessarily an edge. On a playoff run for example, that would probably affect certain teammates. Please also explain how Pau Gasol has been the best Laker in this year’s playoff run according to Win Shares.

    Further, take the Ariza-Artest example. One is potentially better off the ball than the other.

    I’d still recommend WS/48 (seems to travel across eras a little better, due to MPG being slightly inflated in the past).

  2. Recap

    Neil Paine is a hater.

  3. Ha, I thought I was actually unflinchingly fair to Kobe in this.

  4. I’m quite confused Neil. Just looking at Magic’s Offensive Win Shares, he clearly beats Kobe.

    Is there some kind of update that you’ve done to the Win Share formula, because it seems to be going against your findings recently. Even though you’re still using Oliver’s ratings.

  5. Win Shares is Justin’s creation and I have no input in its formula. It’s become sort of the official player stat of Basketball-Reference, but I think we’d both agree that it’s not perfect and has flaws. When given my choice, I feel much better looking at component stats (ORtg/%Pos/some combo of DRtg & DPA) than I do about an all-in-one metric like Win Shares. The only reason I like SPM as an all-in-one metric is that it was developed organically via regression, but even it can’t be used as a stand-alone. You need many different metrics to develop a clearer view of a player’s ability.

  6. I respect that, but it seems we have an issue with Kobe. He has one year with a usage rate of 38% and a 114 O-rating. However his other years don’t see a large boost when he’s deferring. He has only three other years with a rating greater than 114, yet his usage rate drops 5-7%. That is not in line with your claims.

    In his case, I suggest he does seem to have a problem without the ball in his hands.

  7. Bryant has an O-rating of 108, on 30.6% usage ratefrom 22-26 years old.

    He has an O-rating of 115 on 33.6% at 28, 115 on 31.4% at 29, and 115 on 32.2% at 30.

    He does not seem capable of let’s say, putting up Chris Paul efficiency on 28% usage rate. Curiously Wade also seems to have a similar problem.

  8. The stock answer is that it’s not really possible to look at season-to-season Ortg/usg% trends and get a feel for the player’s tradeoff, because it’s not clear whether the player had a different efficiency because he had a different usage, or a different usage because he had a different efficiency, etc. It’s a chicken and egg problem. I think the best you can do to “prove” the relationship is what Eli did here:

    It doesn’t always work out nicely, but it’s a good general guideline. Also, Dean Oliver himself addressed the idea that Kobe couldn’t put up Chris Paul-style efficiency numbers on a reduced usage rate when he found that the tradeoff was smaller for high-usage players. Theoretically, the benefit of Kobe taking on fewer possessions is smaller than the penalty of Derek Fisher taking on more possessions. But that actually backs up the idea that Magic Johnson might not be able to handle Kobe’s usage rate, because the penalty for taking on 1 more % of possessions accelerates as you take on more usage.

  9. Numbers — without context — are meaningless.

    Magic, in his prime, played with Kareem. And vice versa.

    Elgin, in his prime, played with Jerry West. And vice versa.

    Kobe played with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown.

    Pau Gasol arrived in 2008, of course, but Kobe was already inching toward the downside of his career.

    Bryant’s offensive rating surely would have increased had he played (in his prime) with the likes of Magic, West, Kareem, and Elgin.

    You can make the argument that Kobe played with Shaq but they never played together during their respective primes.

  10. The context is captured by % Poss. We’ve accounted for his increased workload due to poor teammates.

  11. Blasphemy.

    There’s no accounting for Smush Parker.

  12. To paraphrase Dan Patrick, you can’t account for Smush Parker, you can only hope to move him off of your balance sheet.

  13. #8

    My point isn’t just about Magic though. Just that Bryant can not function at a truly elite level without the #1 single season usage rate of all time. At any other tier (let’s say 33 usage%), you couldn’t necessarily assume he would have a 116+ O-rating.

    I’ve observed Kobe’s playoff career, the trend clearly continues to show up. He has a 111 o-rating on 31.7 usage from ages 22-31 in the post-season. 114 O-rating on 32.7 usage from ages 27-31. The link you gave was helpful for general situations, but this is a specific instance.

    Neil, I fear you may be starting to overrate Kobe’s value in his prime a little bit (no disrespect meant). In a playoff situation where his team has a chance to win something, he would most likely defer somewhat (back to 2009 level for example). And he has never shown the ability to raise his o-rating significantly while doing this (Max of 116-117 in two titles). I know Bryant was clearly not the best offensive player back in 2006 even with his high usage rate. That is reflected in offensive win shares and some other metrics.

    Why would Justin not account for Poss% in your manner, if it is such an important factor though? I understand if a metric is not perfect, but looking at the calculating Win Shares page, individual offensive possessions seems to be accounted for.

    2. Calculate offensive possessions for each player. James had an estimated 1928.1 offensive possessions in 2008-09.
    3. Calculate marginal offense for each player. Marginal offense is equal to (points produced) – 0.92 * (league points per possession) * (offensive possessions). For James this is 2345.9 – 0.92 * 1.083 * 1928.1 = 424.8. Note that this formula may produce a negative result for some players.
    4. Calculate marginal points per win. Marginal points per win reduces to 0.32 * (league points per game) * ((team pace) / (league pace)). For the 2008-09 Cavaliers this is 0.32 * 100.0 * (88.7 / 91.7) = 30.95.
    5. Credit Offensive Win Shares to the players. Offensive Win Shares are credited using the following formula: (marginal offense) / (marginal points per win). James gets credit for 424.8 / 30.95 = 13.73 Offensive Win Shares.”

    Pau Gasol clearly has lower Offensive win shares in the 2009 title run, even with a higher O-rating and comparable minutes played. Win Shares indeed seems to adjust for this.

  14. Over time I’ve realized the importance of thinking like a basketball coach/scout as well as a statistician when approaching the usage/efficiency trade off. As statisticians we want that holy grail formula, but it’s not there. At the same time the usage/efficiency trade can’t be ignored.

    Some things I usually think about:

    Does the change in usage actually change the way the player is being guarded or the type of shots available to them. The quality of shots taken by guy already using 30% of the offense isn’t going to change much. They’re already the focal point of the defense and relying on their ability to create shots basically at will. I don’t think the quality of shots Bryant takes at 38% usage or the defense he faces varies much from 33% usuage. On the other hand someone like Joakim Noah has varied pretty consistently from just under 15% to just under 20% usage during the last couple of seasons depending on the usage rates of the perimeter players surrounding him at that point in the season. At 13% his ORtg is well above 120. At 18% usage he has to attempt more difficult shots and take some jumpers and he slides to an ORtg around 110.

    Is the player primarily score in catch and shoot situations, whether it is behind the three point line or in the paint? Do they create most of their own offense? Off the ball catch and shoot players are typically going to be more effected by changes in USG% than guys creating their own offense.

    The magnitude of a 5% increase in USG% is also relative to the player. Remember the player is the one experiencing the change. The player going from 15% to 20% is seeing a 33% increase in his role. Kobe Bryant going from 33% to 38% is only experiencing a 15% increase in his role.

  15. And I really appreciated the work done with Baylor and West.

  16. That’s a great point, and one which I addressed in this piece:

    Different tradeoffs depending on the player’s initial usage.

    Anyway, I’m trying to give Kobe as much benefit of a doubt as possible in this piece to avoid any claims of bias. The bigger the tradeoff, the better Kobe looks because it’s going to ding anybody who tries to approach his massive usage level, even if they’re coming from 26, 27, 28%.

  17. 6-24, 2 assists, 4 TO’s, .405 fg% for the series; the GLOAT delivers yet again! (yes, I’m bitter). Amazing how he keeps winning while under-performing offensively in the finals; by my count, Bryant has played a great offensive series in just 2 out of 7 finals appearances (02 and 09).

    PS Kobe’s “prime” is the last 10 years (2001-present), not just years after Shaq left. But if you believe that, I guess you only credit him with the last 2 titles right? Kobe finally has matched… Hakeeeeem!

  18. PPS when did we decide to scrap win-shares as the go to metric? WS stats of Magic, West, and Shaq blow Kobe away; Kareem too, especially if you look at just his first 10-12 years with LA. PER favors all those guys (except West)over KB too

  19. I think the problem is going from general patterns of higher usage -> lower efficiency to projecting it to specific players. As Kobe’s career illustrates, he’s had an orating of 115 at both 30% and 36.5% usage. He’s had 112.8 at 31.6, and 114 at the lowly 26.3 usage. So I think you’re really insulting Magic and Kareem to assume that they wouldn’t have similar randomness in the relationship between usage and efficiency if they increased their usage numbers.

    I accept that on average there is a usage/efficiency tradeoff. However, it would be interesting to see for how many individual players that holds. 60% of players? 70%? Since I’m 100% sure there are a lot of players whose careers defy the overall logic of it (as some of Kobe’s years show.)

  20. #18 Good point.

    Not scrapped yet, it is a fine metric.

  21. I’d be interested to see what happens to the ORtg of Green, Rambis, Thompson, Scott, Wilkes, Cooper, etc. when Magic Johnson is removed. I know that most metrics are not real impressed with assists. I respect that. I can see where an assist is just a pass until somebody else makes a shot. BUT, is there any way we can select for what happens to the Lakers teammates when Magic’s playmaking disappears?

    Sure you don’t need to replace a metric Kobe worth of usage (though it would be interesting to see how the usage was broken up. Surely Rambis wouldn’t be expected to create as much offense as Worthy to fill the void), but there must be a numerical way to express the fact that it is more difficult for skill-free hustlers to contribute offensively without the preeminent playmaker of all time on the team.

    Can we factor Asst% or something? Regress games played with Magic against games played without him?

    Comparing Kobe to Magic is not apples to apples in terms of what they provide for a team. Magic’s MVP 1987 season his usage was 26%, but his assist% was a staggering 47%. Kobe’s MVP season his usage was 31% and his assist% was 24%. A 5% difference in used possessions vs. a 23% difference in team scores assisted on while each player was on the court. That’s about roles on their teams (which is dictated by play style, skill set, team need, etc.), but overall Magic’s responsibilities are not as much in the realm of scoring (though he was doing more of that that year than previously), and to try to gauge his value vs. Bryant by those standards almost seems dishonest, though I know you don’t have some kind of pro-Kobe agenda or anything.

  22. It’d be great to compare these players’ performances in Finals games. They all played in a bunch of them so the sample could be significant.

    I would also love to read an advanced stats comparison betweeen MJ and Kobe in the Finals.

    In terms of “normal” stats here how it goes (my own calculations so there might be a few mistakes in there):
    MJ : 35 games – 33.6ppg – 6.0rpg – 6.0apg – 1.8spg – .481 FG% – .368 3P% – .806 FT%
    KB : 37 games – 25.3ppg – 5.7rpg – 5.1apg – 1.8spg – .412 FG% – .314 3P% – .848 FT%

    HUGE advantage for MJ in terms of scoring and FG%

    To be fair to Kobe you have to disregard the 2000 Finals, during which he got hurt and was not in his prime yet.
    Here how it goes:
    KB : 32 games – 26.8ppg – 5.9rpg – 5.2apg – 1.9spg – .418 FG% – .322 3P% – .845 FT%

    His scoring average goes +1.5ppg, however his shooting % remain subpar.

    It’s also interesting to look at Kobe’s performance without Shaq, ie. as his team’s alpha dog:
    KB : 18 games – 28.7ppg – 6.2rpg – 5.2apg – 2.1spg – .413 FG% – .330 3P% – .843 FT%

    Great scoring average, yet amazingly he has almost the same shooting %. It just seems that regardless of his shooting volume, Shaq’s presence or the opponent’s defense, Kobe just can’t make more than .42% of his shots in the Finals.
    Actually out of 7 finals, he’s only had one gret shooting performance, in 2002 in the Nets sweep (.514%, 36/70). Yet this performance was overshadowed at the time by Shaq’s absolutely brutal domination (36.3 ppg on .595 FG%).

    For MJ you can break it down by three-peat:
    1st : 17 games – 36.3ppg – 6.6rpg – 7.9apg – 2.1spg – .526 FG% – .421 3P% – .805 FT%
    2nd : 18 games – 31.1ppg – 5.4rpg – 4.2apg – 1.6spg – .434 FG% – .316 3P% – .807 FT%

    It’s no surprise but in the 1st three-peat he was just brutal. It would love to see what advanced stats say but the only comparison that comes to my mind is Lebron James’ play in the 09 ECF against the Magic. However MJ pulled that off in the Finals, 3 years in a row and every time for the winning team. Absolutely mind-blowing IMO.
    However I’d say that at least 2 of the 3 teams he faced (the 91 Lakers and the 93 Suns) were just average defensive teams (I need to check that but that’s clearly the way I remember it anyway). Kobe on the other hand has met some of the defensive teams of all time in the Finals (04, 08, 10).

    When you look at MJ’s stats in the 2nd three peat it’s interesting to see that his scoring average declines but remains in the low 30’s, a mark that Kobe hit just once in 7 finals (09 against the Magic). Same thing for his FG% which remains better than Kobe’s in all but one of his finals (02). He was aged 33-35 and physically declining (especially in 98) and still managed to outscore Kobe in an extremely physical and defensive era, in a league mostly dominated by big men before the rule changes that made it easier for perimeter players to dominate.

    Well… so much for the Kobe vs MJ debate…

    I don’t have the finals stats prior to 1991 so I can’t make this analysis for Kobe vs other Lakers. Would love to see it though.

    My main point is, as great a player as Kobe is or might be, he has mostly underperformed in the finals

  23. AYC,you are a hopeless hater.

    Congrats Kobe,you are what you are,one of the two at SG and in top five of the greats.Let hate give you more fuel,go rest up your crooked fingers,swollen knee,bad back and all and come back for a sixth!

    Very good piece Neil.

  24. First of all, can we outlaw the term “hater”? I would be happy if that word never got tossed around ever again.

    Anyway, it seems like the Magic-Kobe debate is really just an extension of the Clyde-Hakeem debate:

    There’s a reason Dean titled one of his chapters in BoP “The Problem With Scorers”. It’s an age-old conundrum: “Jerry Stackhouse can’t get a shot to go in, but he can almost always get his shot off. Steve Kerr could only get a shot off through a pass, but he could often get it in.”

    When you run SPM for Magic and Kobe, Magic is undeniably better, which goes back to what Dave Lewin said — sometimes on-court efficiency behaves in a way that isn’t totally predictable by the ORtg/Usg tradeoff.















    Magic is better almost every year at the same age, usually significantly so. At ages 28 & 29, Kobe was better, but Magic regained the lead at 30 & 31. Kobe’s peak ability was to add +9.8 points to the teams efficiency differential when on the floor, and he was only able to do that once. Magic’s peak was to add +11 points of differential, and he eclipsed +10 on 3 different occasions! By SPM, it’s no contest.

    This shows that different metrics, both quality metrics btw, have different opinions when it comes to comparing mega-volume scorers and guys with more reasonable usages but better efficiencies. It’s really tough to figure out how to compare the two types of players.

  25. FWIW, I think SPM may be the better indicator for a playmaker like Magic, because it tries to use assists as a proxy for the intangible effect Jason mentioned. I think it was Bill Simmons who was talking about Kobe and Magic’s legacies a few weeks ago, and he noted that no matter who Magic’s teammates were, the Lakers always won 50+ games. That 1991 team wasn’t a great team, yet they still went to the Finals. Magic just seemed to have some kind of impact that extended beyond his conventional stats. He said something along the lines of, “Magic wouldn’t have let a season like the Lakers had in 2005 [34-48, worst defense in the league, missed playoffs] happen to one of his teams.”

    Now, that’s probably an exaggeration… Magic never had teammates like Chucky Atkins, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Jumaine Jones, Brian Cook, & Tierre Brown. That’s a legitimately horrific supporting cast. But it is interesting from an SPM standpoint, because Magic seemed to be one of those Impact Guys, guys who could add 10-11 points of efficiency differential to a team, which is enough to single-handedly carry you to 50+ wins and the playoffs even with bad teammates.

    Jordan was the ultimate Impact Guy (+16 at his peak!!!); LeBron is one of those Impact Guys (+13 peak), as was David Robinson (+12) in the regular season at least; Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul are Impact Guys when healthy (+11-12); other Impact Guys in the +10 range include Bird, Hakeem, T-Mac in 2003, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, young Kareem, etc. Kobe was never one of those major Impact Guys, even when Shaq left and it was his team. He maxed out at +9.8, which is close to +10, but he was only there once, and the rest of his career, +7.5 seems to be his max impact.

  26. In fairness, though, SPM also harbors an unnatural love for Andrei Kirilenko, Nate McMillan, Doc Rivers, and Terry Porter; it isn’t a huge Moses Malone fan (Moses maxes out at a Kobe esque +7.5 despite subjectively being a major Impact Guy); and it thought Derek Harper was worth +11 efficiency differential in a game when he was 2-for-10 with 10 points, solely because he notched 10 assists:

    So I guess nobody’s perfect.

  27. At any given time, the Lakers have at least one of the 3 best players in the league.

    The NBA seems real happy with that.

  28. Small sample sizes!

  29. Yes I’m a hater; does that disprove anything I said? “6-24 with 4 TO’s and 2 assists; .405 FG% for the series” aren’t numbers I just made up. Celts lost because they didn’t have their full lineup. The Celt’s success was alway contingent upon staying healthy, which they couldn’t do. LA had 23 ORb last night with Perk sitting.

    Based on either WS or PER, KB is one of the top 20 players of all-time, but not top-ten by any stretch. I happen to think Kobe is better than the advanced stats suggest, but not in the same class as Magic, Kareem, Shaq, MJ, Bird, Hakeem, TD, Oscar, Wilt or Russell

  30. I’m glad you brought up that 34-48 2005 season. First of all, neither Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson would’ve allowed any team they were on to be that bad. Secondly, Neil Paine made the supporting cast out to be much worse than they were. That year Kobe also played with Lamar Odom, who had previously been a consistent 17 10 and 4 guy, as well as Caron Butler, who is good for 20 and 6. Kobe is a great player no doubt, just not nearly as great as people try to make him out to be.

  31. I can completely understand Magic not letting Lakers have a 34-48 season (I am guessing Lakers would have got 43-44 wins with Smush, Kwame et al with Magic running the show) but the comparison with MJ is just ridiculous. MJ went 38-44, 30-52 and 40-42 in his 1st 3 years. Granted he missed some 60 games in his 2nd season but given his cast (muy muy better than what Kobe had in 05), the Bulls should have at least gone 2-3 games over .500.

    Now don’t call me a Jordan hater, he’s probably the greatest individual player ever (Wilt anyone???) but his impact was never as good as say Bird/Magic/Oscar on below average/downright horrible sides. Case in point, Magic’s return in 96. Lakers were 31-19 (or somewhere in that range), which is a very good record but went 22-10 the rest of the way. When expanded to 82 games, it shows a 6 game improvement, an improvement that came from adding a slightly overweight AIDS patient who hadn’t touched the ball for almost 4 years not playing his naturally preferred position of a guard.

  32. Srini,

    Magic and Bird never played with horrible supporting casts in the NBA – they always had at least 2 all-star caliber teammates and for the majority of their careers they played with at least 2 HOF caliber guys so it’s a bit unfair of an argument because they never had to carry horrible teams. Oscar’s impact is way overrated IMHO. He improved a terrible team his rookie year, but Cincy was still pretty bad that year. Cincy stayed mediocre the next 2 years, won 55 games in ’64 when Lucas arrived and then dropped each of the next 2 years before going 4 straight years without making the playoffs from ’67-70. Only when he was a clear second bannana to Kareem in Milwaukee did he finally find major success on a consistent basis and win his only title – college or pro.

  33. Melvin says:

    Magic and Bird never played with horrible supporting casts in the NBA – they always had at least 2 all-star caliber teammates and for the majority of their careers they played with at least 2 HOF caliber guys so it’s a bit unfair of an argument because they never had to carry horrible teams.>>>>>>>>>>>>

    The team Bird came to was 29-53 the year before and 32-50 the year before that. I don’t care what names were on the roster. When Bird got to them they stunk. They won 61 games his 1st year—the largest single season turnaround with JUST ONE CHANGE to the starting lineup in NBA history. No McHale, no Parish yet. No Ainge, no DJ.

  34. Srini,

    I don’t think cherry-picking Jordan’s first three years in the league has much meaning at all. If anything, the 30-52 record in 85, when Jordan started 7 games, shows that his supporting cast was pretty bad. Three years later he was bringing substantially the same supporting cast to the Eastern Conference Finals.

  35. Wow. All you needed was to see him, understand the game and have played at a level past street pick-up games to know that Magic was not only the best Laker ever, but the best all-around player ever, on any team.
    Kareem is a close second as a Laker, then you can use whatever “metrics” you want to pick whose third.

  36. First, Neil – I think this is a pretty solid and illuminating analysis. It’s about as far as we can go with this with the numbers, due to some of the factors you’ve mentioned with Mikan, Baylor, and West. I think from this point, it would take watching hours of film (synergy style) and making some more subjective analyses about how players played specifically within their offensive/defensive systems and with teammates. Without getting too deep into my thoughts on that, shot selection and the ability to make others better would probably severely hamper Kobe if we looked at things with an even finer tooth comb, independent of who was around him (as you note at the end, I would use that to separate him and West).

    That said, it seems as though some in this thread have lost sight of what I see as your main claim:

    “In case you can’t tell, I think that’s an extremely flawed and childish way to look at the question of who the greatest Laker was/is.”

    Tonight’s outcome should have little bearing on the “Greatest Laker” conversation, because Bryant will be the exact same player tomorrow morning that he is right now.”

    That’s it to me – I think the numbers you’ve presented bear out the claim that we need to suspend assertions that he’s even the Greatest Laker, much less the GOAT (as some might try to suggest) on the basis of winning another championship with Pau Gasol. It is certainly fun to debate and there are definitely arguments in Bryant’s favor (as I believe you’ve presented), but the dominant reasoning being bandied about is indeed “extremely flawed and childish”.

  37. Melvin Says:
    June 19th, 2010 at 4:06 am

    Magic and Bird never played with horrible supporting casts in the NBA

    Bird inherited a team that went 29-53 the year before he got there. They were 32-50 the year before that. They stunk. Let’s stop pretending they didn’t.

  38. Sean,

    Boston’s turnaround during Bird’s rookie year was a little inflated IMHO. Tiny Archibald was past his prime, but he was still an all-star caliber player in ’80 as well as the next 2 years and Cowens averaged 14pts, 8 rebs and 3 assists while getting second-team all-defense honors that year. Both are in the HOF. Cedric Maxwell was also close to all-star caliber in ’80 and his contributions in Boston’s success from ’80-85, especially ’81, are criminally underrated. Boston had terrible coaching and team moral in ’78 and Auerbach essentially threw the ’79 season away in preparation for building things around Bird. That inflated the turnaround when Bird arrived. Bird had 3 quality teammates – 2 of which are in the HOF – to support him and let’s not forget the impact of Bill Fitch as a coach; he played a big part in that turnaround.

  39. Melvin Says:
    June 21st, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Boston’s turnaround during Bird’s rookie year was a little inflated IMHO.>>>>>

    Well, the team was 29-53 the year before he got there. And 32-50 the year before that. They stunk for whatever reason. The turnaround was a ‘little’ inflated? How do I argue against that? It was still remarkable…

  40. JT Says:
    June 17th, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Magic, in his prime, played with Kareem. And vice versa.

    Kareem was 32 when Magic teamed with him. Gasol and Shaq’s mean productivity (ppg, rpg) has been greater with Kobe than Kareem’s was with Magic.

  41. The idea that Kobe is even being suggested as the GLOAT pains me. I’ll give an emphatic ‘no’ to that question.

  42. Sean: I won’t argue it wasn’t a remarkable turnaround – it clearly was and Bird was the primary cause. But there were also other factors involved that often get overlooked whenever it’s brought up because people get too caught up in the Magic-Bird hype. I’m just saying that as great as those 2 were they never had a weak supporting cast their entire careers and during their ’84-87 prime run LA and Boston were just stacked. I’d even argue Magic wasn’t the best Laker until ’86 when Kareem’s declining defense and rebounding had slipped to the point where he was no longer a reliable defensive anchor – though he was still the team’s go-to offensive player that year until turning things completely over to Magic in ’87. And I agree wholeheartedly that Kobe isn’t the GLOAT – I’d go with Magic with Kareem a very close second, West third and then Kobe, who beats Shaq because of longetivity.

  43. Melvin, I agree with pretty much of your last post.

  44. This is one of the best discussions regarding all-time greats that I’ve ever witnessed. Objectivity and numbers are balanced but not trumped by subjective analysis and theorizing. This is how it should be done.

    Given the W/S metric, and maybe the SPM, who is statistically the greatest player ever?

    P.S. I agree that Kobe didn’t only have Smush and Kwame. Clearly he had Lamar and Caron, who both averaged over 15/game.

  45. The greatest Lakers of all time in order, no argument are 1. Jerry West. 2. Magic Johnson.
    3. Elgin Baylor. 4. Kareem Abdul-Jaabbar. 5. Kobe Bryant. 6. George Mikan. Wo;t and Shaq never played long enough for the Lakers. No one else is in the argument.

  46. Donald Lechman

    that is supposed to be Wilt, not Wo;t

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